By André Forget
Bonnie Briggs, founder of the Toronto Homeless Memorial, reads a poem in honour of those who have died on the street. Photo: André Forget.
The word “pilgrimage” often conjures up images of holy places in ancient lands, of quiet prayer and inward reflection. But for a group of Anglicans and Lutherans in Toronto, the word took on a new meaning Nov. 22 when they participated in “Come and See,” a pilgrimage put on by Anglican community organizers from the diocese of Toronto in conjunction with the national church.
The pilgrimage, which took place on National Housing Day, was meant to raise awareness of the worsening housing crisis in Canada, which in 1998 the federal government declared a “national disaster.” On any given night, an estimated 35,000 people do not have a home, according to the Homeless Hub, an online community of academics committed to gathering and disseminating information about homelessness in Canada. In any given year, 235,000 Canadians will experience homelessness, with 5,000 having no shelter of any kind, 180,000 staying in emergency shelters and 50,000 being provisionally accommodated.
The event drew attention to some of the ways in which parish ministries are responding to the crisis in the wake of the joint declaration made by the Anglican and Lutheran churches in 2013 on homelessness and affordable housing. The declaration called the church to act in support of the homeless and marginally housed and to advocate for renewed federal funding for housing.
The pilgrimage began early in the morning at Holy Trinity Anglican Church, where churchwarden Michael Shapcott, who has been involved in housing advocacy in Toronto for many years, provided some historical context for the drastic decrease in social housing since the mid-1980s.
Bonnie Briggs, founder of the Toronto Homeless Memorial, then shared some of her own experiences as a homeless person on the streets of Toronto. “I first became homeless in 1987,” she said. “The landlord of the place we were living at sold the house. We were told that the new owner wanted the whole house for himself. Three months later we were on the street.”
She spoke of how she and her partner slept wherever they could for two years, until they were finally able to find affordable housing. She formed a committee to create the memorial in honour of those she knew hadn’t been as lucky. The memorial contains over 700 names, listing all the known homeless people who have died on the streets of Toronto since 1985.
At St. Stephen-in-the-Fields Anglican Church, priest-in-charge Maggie Helwig spoke about the breakfast program her parish runs. Helwig argued that the church has an integral role in fighting poverty and homeless, at one point quipping, “when Jesus said ‘the poor you will have always with you,’ it wasn’t a policy recommendation.” She also invited some of the regular breakfast attendees to answer questions from the pilgrims about their experiences of being homeless or marginally housed.
One of the most common narratives that came out the pilgrimage was of people who became homeless later in life. At the midday meal at the Anglican Church of the Redeemer, Don Morgan, who now works part-time at Redeemer as a caretaker, shared how he became homeless after a career working in the financial services industry and as a business systems analyst. “After the last project I was on ended,” he said, “a lot of things in my life caught up with me and I went into a depression which lasted for about two years, and by that time I had no other resources, so I had to leave.”
It was through Redeemer that he was able to get back on his feet, but he shared his story as a reminder that no one is so secure that they might not one day find themselves in a position of homelessness.
The next stop on the pilgrimage was at the Church of San Lorenzo, a Latin American Anglican parish served by Fr. Hernán Astudillo, who came to Canada from Ecuador as a political refugee in 1992. Astudillo’s congregation is made up of refugees and immigrants from many Latin American nations, and his parish has become a centre for building and connecting Latin American migrants living in Toronto.
Astudillo argued that the church needs “a new theology and a new spirituality: that of the immigrants,” in order to recapture its vital energy, and he also challenged the idea that funding needs to come in big grants. Instead, he gave an example of how San Lorenzo raised money through donated beans, which were then made into pupusas and empanadas and sold to members of the community for $2.
The final stop on the pilgrimage brought the group to All Saints Anglican Church, at Dundas and Sherbourne streets, at the heart of what the Toronto Star called in 2009 “the most violent quarter of the city.” All Saints is unique in Toronto among the parishes visited in that its outreach is the purpose for its existence, to the extent that its building has been shaped around the services it provides the community, including a bakery where street-involved men and women can get work experience.
The Rev. David Opheim, the priest/director/incumbent at All Saints, spoke passionately about the importance of providing a safe space where people—and especially women—would feel comfortable coming, a place that didn’t expect them to be able to turn their lives around immediately. “We are not judgmental; we base our work on harm reduction,” said Opheim. In addition to housing 56 people in a building adjacent to the church, All Saints has a nurse on-site during the week to help people who might not feel comfortable going to a hospital.
Several of the individuals who were part of the pilgrimage were themselves homeless or marginally housed, including John Birnie, a “lifelong Anglican” and trained musician who heard about the event through his involvement at All Saints. Birnie called it “inspirational” to see how many churches were involved in outreach.
Angie Hocking, outreach co-ordinator at the Redeemer, said that the idea for the pilgrimage arose from the desire to find an alternative “to having a conference where we all sit in a room and talk about homelessness.” Instead, she wanted to “get out there and see different spaces, learn from people with lived experience and hear from different ministries on their own turf.”
Henriette Thompson, director of public witness for social and ecological justice at the national church, who, along with Hocking, was involved in the leadership and planning of the event, said she hopes this will be a “pilot” for similar events in other cities.
Anglican Journal News, November 26, 2014